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Mindfulness and Teaching

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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In a study involving groups who didn't especially like rap music or football, Langer and an associate found that even disliked tasks can be made pleasant. How? By encouraging participants simply to draw distinctions. The control groups who weren't given instructions that caused them to engage the experience in this way continued in their dislike. Those who drew distinctions ended up liking listening to the music or watching the Superbowl. Indeed, the more distinctions they drew the more they liked the activities. "Mindfulness is engagement," Langer says simply.


The posting below looks at some important work by Harvard psychologist Ellen J. Langer on what she calls "mindfulness" teaching. The article. written by Executive Editor, James Rhem, is number 17 in a series of selected excerpts from the National Teaching and Learning Forum newsletter reproduced here as part of our "Shared Mission Partnership." NT&LF has a wealth of information on all aspects of teaching and learning. If you are not already a subscriber, you can check it out at [] The on-line edition of the Forum--like the printed version - offers subscribers insight from colleagues eager to share new ways of helping students reach the highest levels of learning. National Teaching and Learning Forum Newsletter, Volume 12 Number 2. ?Copyright 1996-2003. Published by Oryx Press in conjunction with James Rhem & Associates, Inc. (ISSN 1057-2880) All rights reserved worldwide. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Reconciling Corporate and Academic Cultures

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning


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James Rhem


Unless they're psychologists focused on the question, how often do most faculty reconsider their notions of intelligence-- what it is, what defines it, and how it works? Not often. In the end, most concepts of intelligence rest on notions of correspondence and speed. The students whose understanding corresponds with what we regard as the facts we see as "out there" and who "gets it" most quickly, we judge as most intelligent. We do this even though we know that "the facts" represent consensus about the history of observation to date and despite the fact that we know the door to further observation is always open. But we often don't expect anything to change. We habitually put weight on fixed, unexamined ideas even though, like Heraclitus, we know that "You cannot step into the same river twice." In these automatic, habitual moments, we are operating "mindlessly," says Harvard psychologist Ellen J. Langer. Though we bridle at the adjective, we know she's right, just as we know Heraclitus was. But what's the alternative? And what implications does an alternative have for more effective teaching?

The short answer to these questions is "mindfulness," a mental pre-disposition Langer has explored in scores of research articles and in two highly readable books "Mindfulness (1989) and The Power of Mindful Learning (1997)." In a telephone interview from Mexico, Langer admits that she's been called a closet Buddhist because of the seeming overlap between her ideas and Eastern perspectives, but her interest in mindfulness had a different origin. In Mindfulness, Langer recounts how her grandmother told doctors she had a snake crawling around inside her head giving her headaches. The doctors saw the woman as "senile"; Langer and her mother saw the doctors as "authorities." Neither questioned their assumptions. Thus, when Langer?s grandmother became more confused, she was given electoconvulsive therapy. Only an autopsy led to the discovery that she had had a brain tumor. She was, in a sense, the victim of "premature cognitive commitments" made by everyone involved, commitments that closed their ears to the sinister fact hidden in the woman's poetic way of speaking.

Myths About Learning

What else might we be overlooking in knowing what we know so unthinkingly or, rather, so unmindfully? Indeed, what might we be overlooking in our own capacities to teach and learn in treating our knowledge about learning itself mindlessly?

In The Power of Mindful Learning, Langer describes seven pervasive myths or mindsets that undermine learning (and teaching):

1. The basics must be learned so well that they become second nature. 2. Paying attention means staying focused on one thing at a time. 3. Delaying gratification is important. 4. Rote memorization is necessary in education. 5. Forgetting is a problem. 6. Intelligence is knowing "what's out there." 7. There are right and wrong answers.

Teaching Conditionally

Langer examines each, offering experimental evidence suggesting its serious limitations. But the central common problem each has is its air of certainty. "The greatest gift that the faculty can give to the students, and that they can give to themselves," says Langer, "is to infuse all that they know with a healthy uncertainty." Langer calls this "teaching conditionally." Persistently acknowledging uncertainty causes a simultaneous acknowledgement of possibility, she says, and that, in turn, leads to engagement and more powerful teaching and learning.

"It's hard for faculty to appreciate, often, that the facts that they took in mindlessly are dependent on the context. Facts don't exist independent of a context," says Langer.

This perspective on experience disturbs some faculty (and students) more than others, and many who accept its truth don't see its relevance. Chemists must learn the periodic table. Does it really matter that they remind themselves and students that the table is a convention, an agreed upon consensus about how to display the results of past observations in summary form? In experiment after experiment, Langer and her associates have proven that it does, that subtle differences in how conditionally faculty present material has significant affects on how students absorb and are able to use it. In response to each of Langer's seven myths, it seems, questioning authority proves the best way to establish one's own.

The Nailed Basics

The pressure to convey one set of basics drives many introductory classes. Certainly the approach has expediency to recommend it, but it runs counter to preparing the way for future experts. Experts at anything, Langer says, become expert in part by varying the basics. Experts, it seems may become experts because of the freedom they feel to question and think in creative ways. Happily, it turns out, faculty can encourage such creative freedom in thinking simply by presenting what they know as an interim report in an on-going inquiry, that is to say, by acknowledging the larger uncertainty surrounding the process of knowing.

In one of Langer's experiments, two groups of physics students were show a 30-minute video and told they would be asked to apply the concepts it presented in responding to a short questionnaire afterwards. One group's instructions included: "Please feel free to use any additional methods you want to to assist you in solving the problems." The other group wasn't given this permission. On direct tests of the material, both groups did equally well. On questions requiring extrapolation beyond the information given, only the group encouraged to use all their knowledge was able to cope. Only students taught "conditionally" responded creatively to new challenges.

Similarly, in another experiment researchers told one group of beginning piano students not simply to repeat their fingering exercises, but to try new things, vary the way they approached them every few minutes, not let themselves become locked into a particular pattern. Not only were the students who were instructed "mindfully" judged more competent by experts reviewing their tapes, the students also reported enjoying the learning more than the control group.

"For everyone there are certain basics," says Langer, "but there's no such thing as 'the' basics."


Single-minded focus may represent paying attention to some, but not to Langer. Again, considerable research suggests that often the inattentive are simply attending to different aspects of a subject from the ones we had in mind. True attention i.e., engagement-requires variability. Just as the eye will not naturally remain focused on one spot in a painting, the mind ranges over the objects of thought. Thus, in striving to increase variability in presenting material, faculty can increase the chances of engagement and deeper learning.

Langer describes several approaches to increasing variability: 1) presenting novel stimuli to students, 2) introducing material through games (which generate a back-handed engagement through the strategic thinking they require), and 3) holding stimuli constant while varying perspectives on it. Indeed, the most effective way to increase one's ability to pay attention, says Langer, is to look for the novelty within a stimulus situation. This, she says, is the most useful lesson to teach students because it frees them to make their learning their own. It doesn't matter if the teacher is presenting "the same old thing" if students feel their own interest in the material generated by their sense of what's novel in it.

Delayed Gratification

In a sense Langer's "myths" themselves seem like a stimulus ("mindlessness") held still, but presented from different perspectives. For example, delayed gratification, the notion that much learning is often grindingly unpleasant relates to ideas about learning the basics, rote memory and fixed attention. But again, approached from this perspective Langer's research scrapes away at the core of "mindlessness" at the center of all these myths. Is it really true that gratification must be delayed because learning about things we don't like is inherently unpleasant.

In a study involving groups who didn't especially like rap music or football, Langer and an associate found that even disliked tasks can be made pleasant. How? By encouraging participants simply to draw distinctions. The control groups who weren't given instructions that caused them to engage the experience in this way continued in their dislike. Those who drew distinctions ended up liking listening to the music or watching the Superbowl. Indeed, the more distinctions they drew the more they liked the activities. "Mindfulness is engagement," Langer says simply.

Langer describes several other convincing studies, all of them pointing away from the received wisdom of common myths about learning and toward reservoirs of mental power seldom tapped by ordinary instruction. "Forgetting," "right and wrong answers," the nature of intelligence itself, all come up for reconsideration, and time and again "uncertainty" emerges as the bedrock of the most probing learning.

Teaching As Learning Together

Advocates of "active learning" and those who accept the importance of student "ownership" and "agency," of student "empowerment" and its place in learning will find Langer's perspective congenial. But her insights into how to achieve important differences in the quality of student learning through relatively simple shifts in attitude have an excitement about them that transcends talking about a new pedagogy. Langer's urging that faculty teach "conditionally" and "relationally," that they fully admit and let the students in on the fact that we swim in a sea of uncertainty which we navigate through longitude and latitude of our own devising, seems frightening on the surface. But this grown-up perspective should lead to more authentic teaching because a deeper appreciation of uncertainty should lead to a greater appreciation of one's students, says Langer.

"If I know' the answer is 'three'? and you say, 'four,' then I have to hide my disrespect for you. If I think the answer is 'three,' but there are ways that 'three' might not be the answer, then when you say 'four,' I'm immediately interested in how you came to 'four.' You end up feeling better about yourself; I enjoy the whole process more because I'm learning ways that the answer could be 'four?' and so on.

"Once the teacher takes the view that the student's response makes sense in some context, rather than that the student is stupid, the teacher becomes actively engaged, and the process of teaching becomes more authentic and more fun.

"Acknowledging uncertainty." says Langer, "is not only humanizing, it's more appropriate given the ever-changing nature of things."